2050.0.55.002 - Position Paper - ABS Review of Counting the Homeless Methodology, Aug 2011  
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Contents >> Contents >> Definition of homelessness


There is no internationally agreed definition of homelessness. As outlined in the section Complexities in estimating homelessness, there are fundamental difficulties in defining homelessness, and, therefore, in describing the characteristics of people who might be considered to be homeless.

Chamberlain and MacKenzie (2008) in Counting the Homeless, 2006 (ABS cat. no. 2050.0) discussed some of the debates with defining and applying a definition of homelessness. They described what is known as the 'cultural definition of homelessness', and they applied this definition to the Census of Population and Housing data in an attempt to measure homelessness within Australia.


The cultural definition of homelessness identifies shared community standards about the minimum housing that people have the right to expect. In CTH the cultural definition is summarised as follows:
"The minimum community standard is a small rental flat - with a bedroom, living room, kitchen, bathroom and an element of security of tenure - because that is the minimum that most people achieve in the private rental market. ..." (Counting the Homeless 2006, ABS cat. no. 2050.0).

Chamberlain and MacKenzie (2008) also presented a model of homelessness that explored an application of the cultural definition. They divided those people living outside of the minimum standard of housing into five groups:

  • Marginally housed: people in housing situations close to the minimum standard;
  • Tertiary homelessness: people living in single rooms in private boarding houses without their own bathroom, kitchen or security of tenure;
  • Secondary homelessness: people moving between various forms of temporary shelter including friends, emergency accommodation, youth refuges, hostels and boarding houses;
  • Primary homelessness: people without conventional accommodation (living in the streets, in deserted buildings, improvised dwellings, under bridges, in parks, etc); and
  • Culturally recognised exceptions: where it is inappropriate to apply the minimum standard, e.g. seminaries, goals, student halls of residence.

Chamberlain and MacKenzie (2008) then sought to measure homelessness using Census data. They also provided separate analysis of marginal residents of caravan parks, whom they did not include in the homeless estimates but indicated that they may be at risk of homelessness.

As detailed in the Discussion Paper: Methodological Review of Counting the Homeless, 2006 (ABS cat. no. 2050.0.55.001), the ABS Review also applied the cultural definition of homelessness to Census data. In addition to the model outlined above, the ABS further considered the culturally recognised exceptions to the definition of homeless. The Chamberlain and MacKenzie definition from 1992 listed four specific exceptions that were culturally appropriate at that time but concluded with the fifth exception "..and so forth". This is reflected in both the opportunity to choose the minimum community standard of housing, and more contemporary views on lifestyle transitions such as 'sea change' or 'tree change'. The ABS outlines that people may trade-off, in the short to medium term, a housing standard in order to support their longer term aspirations, and that these people are not faced with the multiple dimensions of disadvantage that are experienced by many homeless people.

In order to apply, or operationalise, the cultural definition, Chamberlain and MacKenzie (2008) outlined four operational categories which they used to identify the homeless population from Census data. The ABS Review further explored records that contributed to the categories, and as a result, renamed some of categories to more closely reflect the homeless situation, and created a new category (Persons in other temporary dwellings). This formed five operational groups of homelessness:
  • Persons who are in improvised dwellings, tents or sleeping out
  • Persons in supported accommodation for the homeless
  • Persons who are staying temporarily with other households
  • Persons who are staying in boarding houses
  • Persons in other temporary dwellings.

These operational categories are based on the cultural definition and can be mapped to the three levels of homelessness: primary, secondary and tertiary homelessness. However due to the limits of the variables collected in the Census, and the challenges of identifying those who are homeless, the operational groups can not take into account all aspects of the cultural definition. For example, it is not possible to determine from Census data if a dwelling has a kitchen or bathroom. Nor is it possible to infer whether there is security of tenure for all people.

The adequacy of the definition of homelessness was raised in the discussion forums and in many of the submissions the ABS received in response to the Discussion Paper: Methodological Review of Counting the Homeless, 2006 (ABS cat. no. 2050.0.55.001). At many of the consultation forums there was discussion about the distinction between being 'house'less and being 'home'less. Submissions received by the ABS expressed varying views about the cultural definition. For example, one submission argued for the definition to be tightened to exclude those in some boarding house type accommodation, in part because government standards for residential accommodation have enhanced the quality and safety of such properties. There is also increasing provision of private rental to suit emerging needs that would fail the 'standard' of separate bedroom or separate kitchen. Other submissions argued for widening the aspects of housing inadequacy when delineating homelessness, for example by including overcrowding and/or those living in caravan parks. Another submission advocated for the definition to include aspects of 'home'. Some submissions suggested that the cultural definition did not meet their needs as a basis for estimating the number of people who are homeless in Australia, and they were in favour of a review of the definition used to estimate homelessness.

Submissions also addressed the application of a cultural definition. Some submissions sought to have the cultural definition applied uniformly to all persons, while other submissions supported identifying those who may not be occupying accommodation that met the specified minimum standard of housing in CTH, but nevertheless should not be considered to be homeless. One example provided was construction workers who, on Census night, were staying in what had been coded by a Census collector as improvised dwellings.

There are many other potential definitions of homelessness which could also be considered when attempting to estimate the number of people who are homeless within Australia. The cultural definition does not take into account all aspects that should be considered as to whether someone is likely to be homeless, nor does it consider persons who may be at risk of homelessness but were not homeless on Census night.


Some alternative international ideas and concepts of homelessness are briefly summarised below.

Internationally there is no accepted definition of homelessness, much less an operationalisation of such a definition. In Europe, Fédération Européenned’ Associations Nationales Travaillant avec les Sans-Abri (The European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless) have developed a European typology of homelessness and housing exclusion (ETHOS) which includes a conceptual definition of homelessness. This covers aspects of rooflessness, houselessness, living in insecure housing and/or living in inadequate housing (FEANTSA, 2011). While this is an overarching definition, there are differing definitions in each of the member countries. Data on homelessness for the European Union are not compiled centrally, or in a consistent manner, or at all in some cases (Greenhalgh, Miller, Mead, Jerome, and Minnery 2004).

In the United Kingdom, homelessness is defined in the Housing Act legislation (1996) as 'a person is homeless if there is nowhere where they (and anyone who is normally with them) can be reasonably expected to live' (Greenhalgh et al. 2004 p69).

The American Federal definition of homelessness is given in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, Section 725 in reference to homeless children and youths, which states: 'The term `homeless children and youths' - means individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate night time residence (within the meaning of section 103(a)(1));'. The act provides examples of accommodation situations for children and youth who may fit the definition (SERVE, 2002).

The Institut Nataional D'Etudes Demographiques (INED) research on homelessness between 1993-2008 discusses the French short hand term for homelessness: 'with no permanent residence'. It considers the nuances of the terms 'residence' and 'permanent'. INED (2008) notes that the term 'residence' denotes more than a bed in either a hostel or with a voluntary organisation, and more than a makeshift shelter. 'Permanency' denotes the occupancy status of the place the person spends the night and rules out places which are liable to change or where the person does not have control over their tenure in that place. The researchers discuss the issues with operationalising such a definition of homelessness and the construction of a classificatory system which combines three dimensions: physical (the kind of premises where the person spent the night); the legal dimension (the right of the person to occupy the place); and the temporal dimension (how long the person can stay there).

Statistics New Zealand base their definition on the ETHOS typology covered above, but adapt it to meet the requirements and contexts in New Zealand (Statistics New Zealand 2009). The definition starts with three domains as follows:

"The social domain is being able to pursue normal social relations, have a personal (household) living space, maintain privacy and have safe accommodation. The legal domain covers having exclusive possession, security of occupation or tenure. The physical domain is the structural aspect of housing and means having habitable housing. The intersection of these domains with housing led to the development of conceptual categories that represent the absence of safe, secure and habitable housing. The New Zealand conceptual categories are 'without shelter', 'temporary accommodation', 'sharing accommodation ' and 'uninhabitable housing'. Not all intersections of these domains are covered within this definition of homelessness." Some of the 'inadequate' and 'insecure' sections of the three domains are not included because they denote rather than being currently homeless being at risk of becoming homeless.


The ABS will consider the options both for a definition of homelessness and for ways to operationalise it. Aspects of homelessness which the ABS will consider include:
  • the concept of adequacy of the dwelling and where it could be broadened to include the quality of the structure, need for repair and the security of the occupants;
  • overcrowding, which is an aspect of dwelling adequacy for its occupants;
  • the concept of 'home,' broadening the concept of housing adequacy to include a place to keep possessions, to relax and undertake recreational activities, a place to withdraw, and a place to build community with family and friends; and
  • a state of houselessness or even rooflessness.

ABS will initially present the issues to the newly formed Homelessness Statistics Reference Group for discussion and advice. Subsequently, ABS will seek input more broadly. It is anticipated that the operationalisation, or measurement, of any revised definition of homelessness would be constrained by, and need to be tailored towards, the collections used for estimation (e.g. Census, survey, and administrative data systems etc). Any changes to the definition that result from consultation would be operationalised for estimating homelessness from the Census and ABS surveys. Census data compilation would also be considered in terms of supporting alternate views of homelessness.

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